Saturday, July 25, 2015

Busy, busy...lots of time on the boat and various other obligations are keeping me from writing a proper post just now.  But two quick things:

1) IT'S RAINING.  This is wonderful.  The temperatures are cooler and there has been rain off and on for the past couple of days.  It doesn't break the drought, but it sure feels and smells fantastic.

2) A happy story from further north, of a young transient killer whale who found herself stranded but, with a little help from some humans, rode out the low tide and swam free again. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Drama in the deep?

No sooner do I post about Onyx and Granny when there seems to be something up between them.  Apparently J2 Granny is spending more of her time now with the J19 family group, composed of J19 Shachi, J41 Eclipse, and new grandbaby J51 (not yet given a nickname). Whale watchers out yesterday reported Onyx traveling along and making some pretty loud, piteous calls on the San Juan Island hydrophones last night.  Onyx was spotted with a K pod family group today.  This is all very curious and I am wishing, not for the first or last time, there was some way to know what was going on with the SRKW socially, some way to understand it aside from the human assumptions that are all we have with which to interpret their behaviors.

L87 Onyx was born into L pod, but lost his mother as a subadult.  He hung around with K pod for a while, before J8 Spieden seemed to adopt him when he was a young adult.  Spieden, who often traveled with Granny and Ruffles, died in 2013, and it was at that point that Onyx and Granny seemed to become close companions. 

Recent research has shown that adult male orcas who lose their mothers are significantly more likely to die themselves in the subsequent year, although don't know why that is. This research points to a compelling mother-son relationship, which seemed in Onyx, Spieden and Granny's case to be so important as to generate a foster-son relationship between the younger male and the matriarchs.  But at the end of the day, we've only been researching this species, and specifically this population, for about 40 years now, so to claim that we "know" anything about animals whose interactions we can only observe for the fraction of their lifetimes they spend at the surface of the Salish Sea is pretty presumptuous.

In any case, I'll be watching what happens with Onyx closely.  He is a favorite of mine (really, which of them aren't?  But he is one I can identify easily at a distance, so I am more aware of time spent with him), and I hope everything works out in his favor.  Hopefully I will be fortunate enough to see him tomorrow, when I'm out on the whale boat for the day.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On Names for Living Things

Names are curious things. What we call another living thing says as much about as, or more, than it does about them. Think of what we call each other, the endearments and the epithets, inspired by our own perceptions and feelings toward another and not necessarily about any inherent truth. In the Western world, most often our parents choose our names for us before we are born, based on the memories of past relatives or their hopes for the person we will be, without knowing anything about our personalities.

There are some who find the name "Killer Whale" problematic. How can assign the name "Killer" to  these animals, who demonstrate such strong family bonds, emotions, and intelligence?  Who can be so like us, gentle and curious, expressive and loving?  A passenger once said to me, "Killer?  But they're so beautiful!" as if beauty and killing are somehow opposite.

If you've ever seen the Transient Killer Whales hunt, you know where the name "killer" comes from.  They are vicious, calculating, cunning hunters. They are merciless toward their prey, seeming to employ psychological warfare as much as their powerful jaws in the hunt. I have seen a transient killer whale drape the entrails of a seal over her rostrum like a trophy. I have seen porpoises hurled through the air, frantically flailing their tails in an effort to escape the killers. There is no question why this is one of their common English names.

Many prefer to refer to these animals as "orcas," derived from their Latin name, Orcinus orca. However, the Latin translates roughly as "demon from hell," which isn't really much better than "killer" in my estimation.

Locally, "blackfish" was the term I was raised with.  My grandfather, a commercial fisherman, railed against the blackfish who competed with him for salmon. When my mother saw them swim past our house one morning, when I was in my earliest throes of whale obsession, she burst into the house calling, "the blackfish are out!" It is the name preferred by my Snohomish Lushootseed language teacher (the Lushootseed word for this animal is impossible to print in an English alphabet, and nearly impossible for a native speaker of English to pronounce).  When I made the mistake of using the word "orca" in class, he informed us that he refused to use the word because it "was from a dead language meant to confuse people," and that statement has been the source of much reflection for me about how we use language to relate to other living things.  Of course, "blackfish" is also the name of that famous movie about Tillikum and Dawn Brancheau.  Because I still occasionally run across a passenger who doesn't know that killer whales are mammals, though, I don't use "blackfish."

And then there is the matter of which population of killer whales we're talking about.  The SRKW are usually referred to locally as "residents," more recently "rezzies," (not a term I use). That is the term that distinguishes them from the "transients," with a much more offensive shorthand term. But then some people were upset that "transient" had a negative connotation, and decided to call them "Bigg's" killer whales. We might just as easily have started calling them Salmon Eaters and Mammal Eaters, but that wasn't how it happened.

As I mentioned in my last post, I dislike naming one animal after another, which is why I still refer to the mammal eating killer whales as Transients. I also prefer to call Dall's porpoises by their alternate name, "spray porpoise," which I feel is more descriptive of their behavior anyway. Of course if I refer to them that way nobody knows what I'm talking about, because Dall's porpoise is the accepted English common name...not so, yet, with the "Bigg's Whale."

It is my impression that naming one animal after another (human) animal reinforces a perception of humans owning animals, being somehow removed from the animal experience and superior to it. Any student of animal behavior can tell you how different from animals we are not, the desire to anthropomorphize aside.

After all, if I told you I was thinking of a beautiful living creature that lived all over the world, had different diets, customs and languages among its different populations, but had in common strong family ties and emotional bonds as well as intelligence and curiosity, and the ability and propensity to be a vicious killer...would you know if I was talking about a human, or a killer whale?

Thursday, July 16, 2015


It has been a long time!

When it was confirmed that J1 Ruffles had died, I lost heart for posting. The whales seemed to lose heart too.  Fewer breaches, less excitement. And very few babies, a big concern for the fragile Southern Resident population.

Two years ago, the Fraser River Chinook salmon run was dismally low.  We hardly saw the SRKW at all.  Transient Killer Whales* came in to the Salish Sea and gave my whale watch boat something to see, but I missed my friends.  Happily, they were gorging on record Chinook runs on coastal rivers, far beyond the range of my boat. 

Beginning last fall, we started to see the fruits of those record runs, when a new Lpod baby was spotted in late summer.  But sadly, that baby didn't survive.  Another huge blow came last December when J32 Rhapsody was found dead on a Vancouver Island beach, pregnant with a full-term female calf, her first.

And then J16 Slick, 42 years old, surprised us all with a brand new calf first spotted on New Year's Eve. Two more calves were born to Jpod--including Slick's own first grandcalf--and another newborn was seen with Lpod.  Four new babies!  And so far, all are doing well.  I am so grateful.

This summer has provided me a lot of time with my friends, watching the new babies play, seeing Ruffles' grandson, Ripple, growing into a healthy subadult, and Ruffles' son Blackberry growing his adult fin that looks more and more like his father's each time I see him.  L87 Onyx has been given the coveted spot of J2 Granny's foster-son, and it makes me glad to know that the orphaned Onyx and Granny have each other.

The whale boat delivers curious gifts sometimes. A couple weeks ago, I met a pair of women on the boat who were just finishing a week at a writers' retreat on Whidbey Island I have sometimes considered applying to.  They encouraged me and extolled the wonders of the retreat location, and were captivated by the whales and what I could tell them about their social structure.  We spent most of the southbound cruise in deep conversation, speculating about the whales' ways of being.  I felt really energized by the encounter.  In what I am sure is a related development, in recent days my muse has been pestering me to write for a wider audience than just myself, so I'm reactivating this blog to that end.  We'll see what the muse has in mind for me next.

*There are those in the research community who insist upon calling these whales Bigg's Killer Whales, or even Bigg's Whales, after Dr. Michael Bigg, who is considered the "father of whale research" in these parts.  (J26 Mike is named in his honor, too.)  My personal feeling is that we shouldn't call animals after people, who are, after all, animals too. More on this later.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Spring is really trying to happen here now.  A robin woke me up before dawn last week, singing its spring song, and I have since heard a few robins singing the same song morning and evening.  The elderberries are showing tiny green leaves at their branch-tips, the ornamental plums are blooming pink and white, the daffodils are starting.  But the weather is uncertain; turbulent winds and roaring surf one day, relentless pouring rain the next.  This being a weekend when I could have worked outside in the garden, it is, of course, a dreary, wet day.  Rain rattles in the downspouts and the western shore of the Salish Sea is hidden from me by fog.

My mood is a dreary, too.  I haven't wanted to come here for the past few weeks, because I didn't want to commit it to writing, but others have now, so.  J1 Ruffles is missing.  He hasn't been seen by any of the researchers since late November.  Jpod had split up, though, with J2 Granny and J8 Speiden (J1's frequent companions) off on their own somewhere and the rest of them cruising southern Puget Sound off and on, so I figured he was off with J2 and J8 and the others.  But now the others have rejoined the pod, and J1 has still not been seen.

The worst of it is, there's no way to know, not for months.  We don't know their ways.  L87 Onyx has been traveling with Jpod lately, which is a bit unusual.  Lpod has been spotted in Californian waters over the winter, which means L87's family is a long ways away; maybe J1 is with them?  The Ks came back for a little while over the winter and now are off doing whatever they do this time of year.  Until all three pods come back together in the summer, we can't know for sure if Ruffles is really gone or not.  But I noticed that the Whale Museum has taken him off their list of adoptable whales.

I can't give up hope, but I am preparing myself.  Ruffles is such an easily identified whale, he is a favorite of many, but I think he also had a way of creating connections with individual humans.  He is never shy of the boats, likes to come up close and take a good look, and give a good look to all the clamoring monkeys on board.  He has been, as I have mentioned before, a regular visitor in my dreams.  Late last October I dreamed of him; he had come into shallow water with the rest of the pod, and I was with a number of other people who were in the water interacting with the whales.  I felt very close to him, a deep friendship, a contentedness in each others' presence.  But I was left with an unsettled feeling when I woke, a feeling I tried to banish but that has grown since I watched the sighting reports over the winter months and noticed he was not among them.

At 60, Ruffles would be the oldest male in the SRKW population.  The next oldest male is many years his junior.  I attended a lecture last week about Conservation Canines and the work they have done with the SRKWs.  While there, I overheard a well known researcher saying that his last day out with Ruffles, following downwind, he could smell Ruffles' breath and it wasn't a healthy smell.  Not encouraging.  Still, I can hardly believe that Ruffles would fall when his own mother, J2 Granny, will be reaching 100 years old this year (give or take a few years; her birth year is an estimate).

Female orcas have a sad advantage over males in these days of toxic contamination of the ocean food chain:  they are able to offload some of their toxic body burden to their calves and the milk they feed them, but the males have no such escape valve.  Obviously, this fact is not a happy one in terms of the calves' health, and indeed probably contributes to their high mortality in the first year.  In Granny's case, though, she probably stopped reproducing before the worst of the contaminates entered the orcas' food stream, so her body burden is probably pretty high.  (This is conjecture; maybe the data actually exists somewhere because I know samples were taken from the SRKW in the past, but I don't know where I would find that information about specific individuals.)  In any case, it seems that Granny and Ruffles may be genetically predisposed to long life and some resistance to the toxins they have been faced with.

One of my sister naturalists did report that she thought she had seen Ruffles, traveling with Granny and Speiden about a mile ahead of the rest of Jpod, in late February.  She is someone who knows the whales on sight well, but she couldn't confirm it.  I know she is worried about him too.  A lot of people are--Ruffles even has his own Facebook page now, where some are already eulogizing him and others are expressing their hope that he will be returning soon.  I'm firmly in the second camp.  I won't let go of hope until a full year goes by with no sightings, which has been the traditional time that has to elapse before the researches declare a member of the SRKW presumed dead.

I will welcome the spring's returning, the calls of the brants flocking along the shore, the salmonberry blossoms bringing the rufous hummingbirds back.  I will find peace with my hands in the earth, preparing the garden for the season.  But my heart is heavy with worry for my dear friend.

Photo by R. Milke

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Patooties Return!

Stepping out late in the day to feed our chickens, I startled a Bewick's wren from our back porch.  I presume it was setting up housekeeping; if so, this will be the sixth year in a row we've had a Bewick's family nesting on or near the back porch.

Bewick's are cavity nesters, but also set up decoy nests to fool predators.  The first year we saw them here, they nested between two Coleman fuel canisters on a shelf by our back door.  Here's mom (or dad) on the nest:

And a few weeks later....

In one of the subsequent years, they built a fake nest in a large hollow tube on a windchime hanging near the porch.

They are sweet little birds, quite bold when they get used to you, and I will often see them out of the corner of my eye as they creep near while I'm gardening in the spring.  We've dubbed the wren family the "Cutie Patooties," and I am happy to know that Mr. and Ms. Patootie are joining us again this year!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Today's Distraction

I find that many of my wildlife sightings come from observing my fellow primates' behavior.  A small crowd gathered on the shore across the road from home this afternoon, pointing and staring at something I couldn't see but that was attracting a lot of seagulls.  I knew the SRKW had been spotted quite a ways north, but I had seen some Dall's porpoises earlier in the day and I was curious what might be causing all the fuss.  Heading over to inspect I discovered a sea lion (or several?) rolling and thrashing as they fed; the gulls were diving after scraps.  That makes four marine mammal species sightings in 24 hours (SRKW yesterday, a harbor seal spotted while watching them, and todays sightings), not bad for not being out on the boat.